Yesterday evening we held our third annual Comic-Con panel on the science of science fiction. And in our unbiased opinion, it rocked. (Attendees said the same, but then they probably wouldn’t have told us it was lame, would they?)
One theme that emerged from the panel was that skillful use of science could make stories better. But being Discover, we needed some evidence. And how better to present this evidence than as a scientific publication:
The Enhancement of Dramatic and Aesthetic Qualities of Fictional Works Through Application of Authentic or Apocryphal Scientific Theories
For those of you who couldn’t make it to San Diego last week, Discovermagazine.com and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange present our panel discussion on “Mad Science,” featuring Jaime Paglia (co-Executive Producer of Eureka), Kevin Grazier (Battlestar Galactica and Eureka science adviser), Jane Espenson (Dollhouse, Battlestar, Caprica, and lots more), Ricardo Gil da Costa (science adviser for Fringe), and Rob Chiappetta and Glenn Whitman (writers for Fringe).
Big thanks to Jennifer at SEE, to all of our panelists, and to the Bad Astronomer, who found time to moderate our panel while he wasn’t partying with Hollywood starlets (Phil – we kid because we love).
It’s going to take a little while for us to fit the video from yesterday’s splendid Mad Science panel through the tubes back to the Hive Overmind Nerve Center (i.e., onto the DISCOVER site), but in the meantime, suffice to say that it was pretty great. The panel featured Jaime Paglia (co-Executive Producer of Eureka), Kevin Grazier (Battlestar Galactica and Eureka science adviser), Jane Espenson (Dollhouse, Battlestar, Caprica, and anything else in sci-fi TV that’s been good lately), Ricardo Gil da Costa (science adviser for Fringe), and Rob Chiappetta and Glenn Whitman (writers for Fringe).
I took notes along the way, so here are a couple of one-liners and insights to whet your appetite (I was writing fast, so apologies if the video later shows I have the wording slightly off):
“We’ll have hot robot action.” —Jane Espensen, on Caprica
“We don’t want people saying, ‘Gee, if only we’d tortured him harder.’” —Jane Espensen
“The plant episode. Yeah, that was so bad—and it was so good we didn’t do it.” —Jamie Paglia in response to Kevin Grazier’s idea for a Killer Tomatoes episode of Eureka
“We don’t want to cross over into magic.” —Jaime Paglia, explaining Eureka‘s rule for limiting the technology on the show
“You usually want to start with something very grounded, so that the viewers think they recognize it, and then you want to push past it,” Rob Chiappetta, on the role of science in Fringe
“It’s easier to get creepy and gross with biology then with astronomy.” —Rob Chiappetta
“You’ve never been to any astronomer parties.” —Phil Plait in response
“Kara just lay down in the grass.” —Jane Espensen, on the ending of Battlestar
Are you at Comic-Con or intending to get there within the next day? Then come tomorrow to Science Not Fiction’s panel, Mad Science, produced in conjunction with Jennifer Ouellette and our partners over at the Science & Entertainment Exchange. Why “mad”? We’ll be looking at science as a double-edged sword, ethically and morally neutral itself, but capable of being used for much good and evil. The panel will be moderated by DISCOVERmagazine.com’s own Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, and includes this star-studded cast:
Jaime Paglia — co-Executive Producer of Eureka
Kevin Grazier — Battlestar Galactica and Vituality science advisor
Jane Espenson — major sci-fi writer/producer: Firefly, Dollhouse, Battlestar, and on and on
Rob Chiappetta and Glenn Whitman — writers for Fringe
Ricardo Gil da Costa — neuroscientist and adviser for Fringe
If you’re convinced, then go to Room 6DE tomorrow (Thursday) July 23rd, 6:00-7:00.
If you’re not yet convinced, consider this: Our panel at last year’s ‘Con was SRO in a 1,000-person room—some folks couldn’t even get in the door—and this year’s panel is studded with even more stars.
For those unfortunate ones who got left behind (like yours truly), don’t mourn too hard: We’ll have the video from the panel posted here soon-ish.
Today we present a very special installment of the Codex Futurius, Science Not Fiction’s look at the big scientific ideas in sci-fi: Kevin Grazier—JPL physicist and friend of SNF—gives an insider’s peek at the workings of and discussion around the Orion antimatter drive used to propel the Phaeton starship in Ron D. Moore’s recent TV movie, Virtuality. Grazier was a science adviser for the movie (which was intended to be the pilot for an ongoing show), so he was right in the middle of these discussions. The screenshot further down in this post shows the actual spreadsheet used in the production to see what stars would be reachable with the Orion drive. Without further ado, here’s some sci in your sci-fi:
DISCOVER: What kind of realistic technology could we use to get to nearby stars? Which stars would be feasibly reachable by such technologies?
Kevin Grazier: It’s a saying plastered on T-shirts and bumper stickers—the kind sold at both science-fiction conventions and physics departments nationwide:
186,000 miles per second:
It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.
The speed of light, of all electromagnetic energy, in a vacuum is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. Nothing that has mass or carries information can travel faster.
This universal speed limit is a direct fallout from Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Special relativity implies that the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant, but values that we tend to think of as constant in our daily experience—mass, length, and the rate of the passage of time—are not. Depending upon the relative velocity of two observers, these values will “adjust” so that both observers see the speed of light as a constant. Two observers travelling at high speeds relative to each other will find themselves in strong disagreement about measurements like the length of each other’s spacecraft and the rate of the passage of time.
Another consequence of special relativity is that, as an object travels increasingly faster, it behaves as if it has increasingly more mass. Therefore the amount of thrust it takes for an incremental change in velocity (known in the space program as a delta-V) is vastly greater at high speeds than at low. This effect is also highly nonlinear: It takes almost an order of magnitude more thrust to accelerate from .9c (nine-tenths of the speed of light) to .99c than it does to accelerate from .5c to .7c. An object travelling at the speed of light would act as if it had an infinite amount of mass and it would, therefore, require an infinite amount of energy (read: an infinite amount of thrust/fuel) to attain it.
This is, of course, a shame for civilizations (like ours) who want to explore planetary systems around other stars first hand. The distances involved are, well, astronomical. Just within the Solar System, it typically takes NASA probes 6 months to a year to reach Mars; it took Cassini 6 years, 9 months to reach Saturn. The (currently) fastest object created by humankind, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, will take 40,000 years, give or take a few thousand years, before it makes its closest encounter with its first star: AC+79 3888—currently located in the constellation Ursa Minor. At that speed few Time Lords, and even fewer humans, would survive the journey to even “nearby” star systems.
Welcome back to the Codex Futurius project, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the ineffable scientific ideas raised by science fiction. In an earlier entry in the Codex, Jill Tarter of SETI talked about whether we and intelligent-alien species X would recognize each other’s transmissions as such. Now Kevin Grazier–JPL physicist, Hollywood sci-fi adviser, and official friend of Science Not Fiction–looks at the next big question: how we could communicate with any aliens we encounter.
My heroes are in a first-contact situation, meeting an alien face-to-face for the first time. How could my heroes and the alien learn to communicate with each other?
Both knowingly and unwittingly, humans have been broadcasting their presence to the Universe since the 1920s—when coherent transmissions in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum became widespread. Our radio and television broadcasts do not stop at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere; rather they propagate into space at the speed of light. While these signals attenuate with distance, they are detectable nevertheless: NASA still regularly communicates with the twin Voyager spacecraft despite the fact that they are over 100 times further from the Sun than Earth and that each of which transmit data to Earth with less power than a common household light bulb. This means that an alien civilization as far away as 58 light-years could potentially be trying to make sense of “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” (There are 105 G-type stars—ones like our own lovable Sol—within this I Love Lucy-sphere.)
Kevin Grazier is, among other things, the science advisor to Battlestar Galactica. With the show wrapping up tonight, Science Not Fiction talked to him about some of the science behind the science fiction. Warning — unless you’ve seen the finale, what follows below contains LOTS OF SPOILERS!
Last week we mentioned the release of the hard-science fiction Diamonds In The Sky online anthology, edited by Mike Brotherton. Science Not Fiction is going to be looking at some of the individual stories over the next few weeks, and we decided to kick off with one co-written by our old pal, Kevin Grazier and Ges Seger. Because the story, Planet Killer, is a cosmic whodunnit, we’ll leave our discussion below the jump: come back when you’ve read it!
For anyone who likes their science fiction so hard you could use it to carve your initials in a diamond, check out Mike Brotherton’s free anthology, Diamonds in the Sky. Brotherton, an astronomy professor and novelist, got funding from the National Science Foundation to put together a free online anthology of sci-fi stories that get their facts right even as they explore strange new futures.
Contributors include Brotherton himself, Alexis Lynn Gleitner, and SciNoFi pal Kevin Grazier. A few of the tales come off on the didactic side — a talking dog literally asks for an explanation of dark matter as a distraction from the plot problems at hand — but others smoothly intertwine science and story telling. The Moon is a Harsh Pig brought wit and verve to an explanation of the moon’s phases, and In the Autumn of Empire was an amusing tale that let the author vent some frustration about scientific misunderstanding.
The Diamonds anthology includes all the usual tropes of aliens, faster than light travel, hybrid talking animals, and so on and so forth, but they’re all either grounded in the scientific theories of today, or they use ideas that follow current trends in scientific thinking. Taken together, the stories make a convincing argument that Hollywood and scifi writers of all stripes need not butcher the facts to tell a ripping yarn.
The most excellent Kevin Grazier stopped by DISCOVER’s offices today — turns out that apart from being the science advisor to Battlestar Galactica and Eureka, he actually has a day job! Kevin works on the Cassini mission at JPL (hence a work-related trip out east.) Kevin also has been doing some interesting research that could upset the conventional wisdom regarding the role of Jupiter in the history of the solar system.